Ever since audio went digital, the music business has been grappling with the problem of piracy and other forms of copyright infringement.
First came illicit file-sharing sites like Napster, then came the BitTorrent protocol that made file-sharing even more effective; then – as digital content moved on to streaming sites – came the problem of stream-ripping: Services that allow users to download streamed content without authorization.
Today, with the rapid rise of AI technology, the music industry is facing yet another form of piracy – unauthorized deepfakes that clone artists’ voices.
Yet this problem hasn’t quite sunk in at all levels of government, as can be seen by the latest edition of the US Trade Representative (USTR)’s ‘Notorious Markets’ Report, which was released on Tuesday (January 30) and can be read in full here.
The annual report, which has been issued since 2011, is a rundown of online and physical markets where piracy and counterfeiting take place around the world. And while this year’s report addressed the file-sharing and stream-ripping issues that have plagued the music business (and other entertainment industries) for years, it had nothing to say on the growing problem of AI deepfakes.
“We appreciate the report’s prioritization of thefts that target the music community such as stream-ripping,” said George York, Senior Vice President, International Policy at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
“And we urge a close look in the future at emerging piracy challenges presented by AI, including the widespread illegal use of copyrighted sound recordings and artist names, images, and likenesses to generate invasive and unlawful voice clones and deepfakes.”
The RIAA had, in fact, tried to get the USTR to take that “close look” in this year’s report. In a written submission ahead of the latest Notorious Markets Report, it sought to focus attention on the issue of AI vocal cloning.
“The year 2023 saw an eruption of unauthorized AI vocal clone services that infringe not only the rights of the artists whose voices are being cloned but also the rights of those that own the sound recordings in each underlying musical track,” the RIAA stated.
“This has led to an explosion of unauthorized derivative works of our members’ sound recordings which harm sound recording artists and copyright owners.”
The RIAA singled out Voicify.ai, which bills itself as the “’#1 platform for making high-quality AI covers in seconds!’ and includes AI vocal models of sound recording artists, including Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Elvis Presley, Bruno Mars, Eminem, Harry Styles, Adele, Ed Sheeran, and others, as well as political figures including Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama,” the RIAA said.
Yet Voicify, and the issue of AI cloning, didn’t make it into the USTR’s latest report. In fact, the report barely mentioned AI at all, save for a reference to “several platforms [that] have invested in artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies as a way to scale up and quickly adapt traditional anti-counterfeiting measures such as text and image screening.”
Much of this year’s report focuses on the issue of counterfeit goods, but it does go over the ongoing problem of illicit file-sharing and stream-ripping. It identifies a site called SSyoutube as ”the most popular YouTube ripping site globally, with over 343 million visitors just in April 2023.” It also identified a site called Savefrom, which has a multitude of online addresses, reporting that it had received a total of 1.3 billion visits as of October 2023.
“[W]e urge a close look in the future at emerging piracy challenges presented by AI, including the widespread illegal use of copyrighted sound recordings and artist names, images, and likenesses to generate invasive and unlawful voice clones and deepfakes.”
George York, RIAA
This year’s report takes a somewhat more optimistic view of the issue of digital piracy than some of the USTR’s previous releases, highlighting some major victories for rights holders.
A key one of those involved the shutdown of popular file-sharing site RARBG. The Bulgaria-based site, which the USTR report called “one of the world’s largest torrent sites” and which appeared on the Notorious Markets Report for seven straight years, shut down in September 2023, shortly after Bulgaria enacted a new law that makes it easier to prosecute operators of piracy sites, the USTR said.
The USTR also pointed to successful efforts to stem piracy in other countries, including the Dutch Fiscal Information and Investigation Service’s taking down of an illegal IPTV service that served more than 1 million users; a significant drop in the use of pirated content services in Indonesia, following a government crackdown; and the latest phase of Brazil’s “Operation 404,” which resulted in the takedown of 199 piracy streaming and gaming sites, including Filewarez, and 63 piracy applications.
The report noted that Dutch anti-piracy group BREIN conducted 458 investigations that resulted in the shutdown of 449 piracy sites and services, and the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE) worked with France and the United Arab Emirates to shut down Uptobox and Uptostream, two of “the world’s most notorious illegal video hosts,” with 1.5 billion visits over the previous three years.
The USTR’s report specifically looks at copyright infringement and counterfeiting outside the US, as it’s the agency responsible for developing and promoting US foreign trade. It cites numbers estimating that, in 2019, piracy cost the US economy $29.2 billion in lost revenue.
And it flagged an ongoing problem in rights holders’ fight against piracy: What it calls a “complex ecosystem” of online services that are “abused” by providers of pirated content to hide themselves from law enforcement. These services include domain name registries, proxy servers and other anonymization services, web-hosting providers, advertisement placement networks, payment processors, social media platforms and search engines, among others.
“Each component in this ecosystem can play a role in facilitating or reducing piracy,” the USTR report stated.Music Business Worldwide